The Defense Ministry has put off flying leaflets into the North Korean territory in consideration of political and legal factors. Yet, the campaign to send leaflets and consumer supplies by flying balloons into the North that has been engineered by some conservative groups not only sharpens tensions with Pyongyang but causes serious internal troubles in the South.
Last year, the military’s psychological warfare outfits sent about half a million leaflets to the North denouncing Kim Jong-il’s dictatorship. They had plans to fly millions more to inform North Korean residents of what is happening in the outside world, including the pro-democracy uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.
The effect of the civilian and military campaigns was measured by the hysterical reactions of the North Korean authorities. They warned of “targeted strikes” on the places where the propaganda balloons originated.
In Seoul, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin was reminded by lawmakers of the impropriety of extending the military psy-war activities to the North Korean civilian population. Ruling party members and presidential aides hinted that such an aggressive military campaign could compromise the government’s strategic position in dealing with the North, which has solicited unconditional dialogue since the beginning of the year.
There emerged legal arguments too. While the South has condemned the North for the worst violations of the armistice for its sinking of the patrol craft Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last year, the Southern military’s spraying of the North Korean territory with psychological warfare materials could give the North justification for its own claim of the South’s breach of truce agreement.
The military has thus shelved the leaflets campaign for the time being. Rightwing civic groups, however, found no reason to follow suit. The arch-conservative National Action Campaign for Freedom and Democracy in Korea and some North Korean refugees groups have tried to fly balloons to the North from various locations close to the border, but this time they were deterred by residents who feared the North’s retaliatory strikes.
On Baengnyeong Island in the West Sea, at Imjingak north of Seoul and in the Korean War battleground of Daemari, Gangwon Province, villagers physically obstructed the activists from releasing the huge balloons. They were not against the cause of the campaign, but they do not want to invite a North Korean artillery strike. Some members of leftist organizations joined the residents to oppose the leaflet campaign.
If the Southern military and the anti-North campaigners could claim that their leaflets have a had significant impact, we should admit that the North Korean commanders have had their share of psychological effect on the Southern population with their threats of “targeted strikes.” Still, we should be able to read their behavior correctly.
Since the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks, North Korea has escalated its verbal offensives in obvious attempts to discourage the South from taking major reprisals. They failed to carry out the threats of retaliation they made when South Korean and U.S. forces conducted joint exercises in the West Sea and even when Christmas trees were lit along the border last year.
In the war of nerves over the leaflet campaign, South Korean commanders may be tempted to test the determination of their Northern counterparts. But restraint is a better weapon in the current delicate situation. Innocent civilians should not unnecessarily be put in increased peril just to see if the North is serious about its threats. After all, it is time for both military and civilian communities to display flawless solidarity in countering North Korean bellicosity.